Understanding “Mindfulness”…

Wild Azaleas by our creek
Wild Azaleas by our creek bed. These make the whole property smell like cinnamon in springtime.

I had a sort of mini-revelation as I was lying in bed early this morning. Considering I have been “practicing” meditation for over 50 years and had read about and practiced “mindfulness” for many years as well – it sure took a long time to sink in to this stage of “getting it”! There is something very different about the ideas you get in the quiet in the dark when you still have one foot in the dream world…

What I got was that I could practice the thing popularly called Mindfulness at anytime anywhere that I found myself thinking thoughts that were not useful or helpful – like those moments in the middle of the night when you get up to pee and crawl back into bed (as I did this morning) – and your brain kicks in and starts chewing on some challenge you are dealing with in your waking life – or just doing it’s sort of “mind-less” wandering thing. You want to go back to sleep but the thoughts have taken over and have you in their grip. This morning I remembered the things Sam Harris was saying on the video “Waking Up” (ironic title!) which I watched last night, and so I just focused on my breath and how my body felt – all warm and cozy under the covers – and next thing I knew it was a couple hours later. I woke up remembering what I had done and was struck by all the different levels we have in learning things.

Wild Shooting Stars
Wild Shooting Stars on the hillside. Hundreds bloom throughout the woods in spring.

I have understood all of this stuff on an intellectual level for many years – have even “practiced” it as well – but this morning I GOT it on some whole new level of my being. Got that I can control my often out of control thoughts and feelings – by simply letting go and focusing on NOTHING – just shifting my attention to “Be Here Now” mode, as we learned from Ram Dass many many years ago. When I do that all the tension flows out of my body. I have a feeling that the body also has the chance to heal itself in those moments of stillness, no matter how brief they may be. Sam Harris talks about the deep joy that can be felt when we are able to expand these moments into longer periods of time. I have been meditating long enough to have actually had a few of those experiences – just a few, and far between – but I know what he is talking about.

But this wasn’t the thing I got this morning… The thing I GOT this morning is that this is a supremely useful and helpful thing to do even for a few seconds or a couple minutes anytime anywhere. You don’t need any special tools – you don’t need to sit down in a yoga position in a quiet room. You don’t need to give yourself a special length of time to do it. And if you are in the middle of DOING something – it will only make you do whatever that is BETTER – because you will be truly paying attention to it!

I believe this is something that happens quite naturally to us when we are out in nature – hiking or gardening or watching a sunset. Perhaps one of the reasons we are so drawn to natural settings and to gardening is because it DOES make being “mindful” so relatively easy and natural.

Native Trillium
Native Trillium. We just have 3 clumps of this and it’s always spectacular and wonderfully long-lasting!

My thinking about it is that – just like with anything new – like standing up straight instead of slouching – or learning a new way to hit a ball – you practice it a lot. You set your intention to do this thing many many times over and over, and after a while it becomes second nature – like riding a bike or driving a car – your body “gets it” and begins to do it without you having to push and pull and remember how to do it each time. This mindfulness thing seems like it would be pretty easy – just a matter of noticing whenever your mind is wandering off in some not very useful direction, and allowing yourself to drop into quiet – noticing your breath instead – or something going on around you – or even what you are DOING at the moment. If you are washing dishes (I don’t have a dishwasher so this is something I get to practice a LOT!) or weeding or driving or taking a bath, just really focus on that – on the sensations of it. Not having ‘thoughts’ about it – but just truly experiencing it. The point is to come back to here and now. I notice that my body relaxes – when I hadn’t even known that it was tense. My face relaxes as the rest of me lets go.

Perhaps this little mini revelation came about because of a confluence of influences. My meditation group and I are reading (a second time for most of us) The New Earth by Eckhart Tolle of the “Power of Now” fame, where he discusses similar sorts of ideas. And right now my son is in the middle of a week long workshop on re-training the brain – focusing on building new neural networks, an idea we have been hearing about and discussing for a couple years now. All this – and the talk now about neuroplasticity and the new understanding that we all have the ability to actually change our brains – just came together in my brain to create this little “ah ha” moment for me this morning.

False Solomon Seal
False Solomon Seal – a wonderfully fragrant native on the edge of our woods

It just suddenly became very accessible – not abstract and mildly un-attainable – but easy to do and understand. I really FELT what it did for my body this morning when I let go of thinking and focused on my breathing and my comfort and warmth in my bed – my muscles noticeably relaxed, when I hadn’t even known they were taut. And I felt peaceful. And – because it was my goal – I went back to sleep. You certainly don’t need to have any sort of spiritual or religious ideas around any of it – just know how helpful that little exercise could be in a million different sorts of circumstances. Let go of thought – breathe – focus on the here and now. So simple. And so useful.

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